Underground, Overground

Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights (People’s History Museum, 25 February-3 September 2017)

I had a bit of a mooch around this, although I think that I spent an hour in here. It is an interesting example of history from below, curated by members of the Manchester LGBT+ community, which I suspect meant that things were selected that might otherwise have been missed. It also meant that there were overlaps between sections and probably gaps. There was probably more stuff from post 1968 than pre-1968, but it was good to see a copy of the Wolfenden Report. There were posters, badeges, photos, fanzines, newsletters, tickets and so on.

It was hard to navigate, although perhaps it made sense to have a section on protest and another on Queers of Color, even if Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners weren’t in the former section. There was a front page of a tabloid covering Sue Lawley’s experience of a protest on the Six O’Clock News but a photo of four of the five lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords. The context for this, Clause 28, is explained elsewhere with a copy of Jennie Lives with Eric and Martin, the book that triggered Tory homophobia.

I suspect the last thing that you are likely to see is a timeline, from 1533 or thereabouts, to the present day, noting significant moments in LGBT+ history and law. The temptation is to go round again, slotting everything into its rightful place, restoring the master narrative. Perhaps this needs to be avoided? Perhaps you can’t separate issues of ethnicity and suffragism out from each other, although the exhibition does. I think I would have placed this first, or on the way in.

For the third time this year, I saw some Claude Cahun photographs — in two parts of the exhibition — although this was clearer than the Sidney Copper Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery in suggesting Marcel Moore took them. Like the other two exhibitions, they insisted on naming them by birth name or deadnaming them. Did this need thinking through? Is it different from an artist going by a name other than their birth one?


Meanwhile, upstairs in the main gallery you can see the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners banner. There’s also a group of photos covering the 1970s and 1980s music scene in Manchester, which overlapped with the queer communities. I overheard a group of young men discussing Queer as Folk and being nostalgic about its depiction of Manchester “even though I wasn’t there”.

I suddenly felt very old.

Estranger in an Estranged Land

The urinals flush before you use them.

At first I thought it was coincidence, but after the third time it was clearly enemy action. There’s some clean/dirt binary that’s being asserted, as if it senses me and thinks I’m … what?

IMG_2379The academic track here at Worldcon has explored the idea of ostranenie as outlined by Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 (actually 1913), which I suspect we know in the sf field due to Darko Suvin’s appropriation of Brecht’s term alienation in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, a book I am singularly failing to review. From Simon Spiegel’s paper I learned — or was reminded — how different the two versions of estrangement are. One becomes more about the familiar becoming strange and the other is more about the strange becoming normalised. Sf is the dialectical pull of both.

But you can experience a sense of estrangement in a new city, especially one in a different country. Dublin and Melbourne are perhaps the oddest — the Anglophone street names and shop fronts could kid you that you are in Liverpool or Glasgow, but the street furniture and the police and the money remind you that you are not in Kansas any more. Bergen is less strange, because Norwegian reminds you forcefully that this is not Britain, although frankly most of the locals speak English better than what you do. There are linked root words, that help you to begin to puzzle your way through. A lot of the shops are different, although we share some chains.

But Finnish is an Uralic language — linked to Estonian and another half dozen or so languages rather than the rest of European grammars and vocabularies, with the exception of Hungarian. Sometimes the dual translation of Sweden on signs offers a clue — “gata” becomes “katu”, and “gata” is close to the “gate” used in street names in towns such as York, but that’s about as far as it goes.

But there also cultural differences that can throw you. As in Norway, the doors open outward rather than in — which you think must be difficult if someone is on your step and you want to let them in. On the other hand, perhaps it is harder to force your way in.

I keep having to remember that they drive on the wrong side of the road — although naturally that word “wrong” is itself wrong. But over the decades you learn to look in a particular direction before you cross a road — and this is especially troubling when a tram might be in the other direction. This moment of estrangement is one that reminds you that things can be otherwise — we follow a convention.

At pedestrian crossings, I find myself crossing even when the indicator is red. There is nothing coming, and cars seem to be able to turn across a green man anyway. Red light — look both ways — look at red light — look both ways — cross. Feel hard stares from the Finns who are still waiting. I am being disapproved of. Or perhaps I am projecting.

I have committed the crime of jaywalking. It seems to be against the law. I break this convention in the UK all of the time — although less so when in an unfamiliar town, as I don’t know the light sequences on junctions which can be learned when you repeatedly cross the same road. “Are you sure you aren’t breaking the law?”, an English person asked me, and unless I’m missing a vital part of the Road Traffic Acts, I don’t seem to be. We are considered mature enough to judge when to cross.

The Finns have internalised a certain kind of practice, which is a law, whilst I am subverting and breaking it. It has never occurred to me — as far as I can recall — to think that I am breaking the system of traffic indicators in the UK, but here I am violating a prohibition.

And so it seems as if I am walking around in a state of almost constant estrangement, and the interesting thing will be whether the next time I use a British toilet, I will assume it is broken because it doesn’t flush as I arrive. But tomorrow I will feel as if an object is judging me or being generous.

Upon this Rock

The Stone Church, Temppeliaukio

If I were called in.
To construct a religion.
I should make use of water.

I don’t do God.

I don’t believe in her. Or him. Or them. Or zie…

Or, perhaps, if there is a transcendent being, I think they have better things to do with their time.

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Matisse in the Studio (Royal Academy of Arts, 5 August-12 November 2017)

A few years ago, Tate Modern had a large exhibition of Matisse’s paper cut outs and collages — making grand claims for his having invented the form and ignoring Mrs Delaney and various Bluestockings in the process. I was more impressed by a smaller show (I think an Arts Council Collection tour?) I stumbled upon in Berwick whilst on a Lowry trail. It was impressive, but I realised that I had not knowingly seen a Matisse oil painting.

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Valium and the Plant of a Thousand Pretties

Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities (Luc Besson, 2017)

Back in the 1980s, there was this thing called cinéma du look, French in original, and films that perhaps aspired to the thriller but were interested in putting disaffected yoofs in attractively shot locations. Stuff like Subway and Diva, huge cults at the time, but more or less invisible today. It was the early days of pomo, and style would triumph over substance.

And Besson was in that group, Subway most obviously, and he’s continued in that vein. Twenty years ago we had his The Fifth Element, which stuck Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman and (unwatchably) Chris Tucker in an sf caper that involved chasing Mila Jonavich around. It was pretty, it was vacant, it was fun, it was portentous. And prententious.

And now they’ve given him lots of money to make Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities, an adaptation of a French comic book I confess meant nothing to me. At the heart of this is Valerian and Laureline (I had to look her name up), agents sent on a mission to retrieve the last specimen of a particular species whose background is associated with a planet which was caught up in some kind of war. And that war is associated with a soldier colleague, played by the reliably wooden Clive Owen who here is giving a performance for once too nuanced for the surrounding movie.

So here it is pretty — like Jupiter Ascending pretty — but vacant — like Jupiter Ascending vacant. If you like a film where you can see half a dozen examples of an CGI alien for thirty seconds, you’ll fill your boots. Repeatedly. The opening five minute montage of docking spaceships and docking spaceships and space stations, with increasingly diverse humans and then aliens, choreographed to “Space Oddity” (for cheap gravitas), is a case in point. It’s a point where you might fall in love with the movie; the quick tour of the space station several centuries later may confirm this. But the thrill is cheap.

The backstory involves a society of pearl fishers, who repay their planet by feeding one of the pearls to an alien cutie who poops pearls in a bigger on the inside ridiculousity not since Doctor Who portrayed the moon as a hatching egg. The alien pooper seems to feed on uranium, something we don’t get to see in the beachly CGI paradise that resembles an early draft for Avatar. The uncanny valley means that actually it would have been more convincing if they’d used animation (or puppets) rather than mocapping. If Avatar was reminiscent of Roger Dean, the. This is a mass uo of Chris Foss, Peter Goodfellow and Tim White.

So as Valerian and Laureline chase and escape, we are treated to a series of set pieces, each pretty in themselves, and with the virtue of the sense that if one sequence is dull, the next one might be better. So the best two things in the film after the opening are Ethan Hawke as a pimp and Rihanna as an entertainer (I gather she is a popular beat combo). Valerian crashes his way through walls, with ne’er a health n safety sign in site. Nod and you’ll miss Rutger Hauer.

A lot of reviewers have said that there is no chemistry between the leads — this is true but I suspect misses the point. On the one hand, Dane DeHaan as Valerian is pretty to look at, although I suspect they’ve CGIed him over Keanu Reeves outtakes from Bill and Ted’s Big Adventure and The Matrix. I could stand more watching, although the character is frankly an arse. Cara Delevingne as Laureline has a pissed off look on her face throughout, reflecting her truthful response to the nonsense to has to say and do, which evidently includes the heterosexual reward narrative and being paired off.

I was quite tired when I saw this, and I was in danger of nodding off — the spectacle having the side effect off lolling me to sleep. The surface is astounding and that’s what you get in cinéma du Luc, but the lack of backstory aside from surplus to requirement flashbacks is frustrating. We know little more about the characters after two and nearly a half hours, but you pays your money for the pretty.

Obtuse Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part Two: Perestroika
(National Theatre, live and live relay, directed by Marriane Elliott)

Inevitably this will include spoilers for Part One: Millennium Approaches — which I was lucky enough to see live and then as a live relay. Equally, it is impossible to talk about this play without discussing the end. I will single out that part of my discussion as I reach it.
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